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Islamist rule by law in Indonesia

This article first appeared in Policy Forum, 3 December 2016.

The great paradox of Indonesian democracy is on display for all the world to see.

On one hand, there is greater freedom of expression and association for all. But on the other, this has given fuel to Islamists to espouse lawlessness and violence in the absence of a strong state.

Today a major rally in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, was held to call for the arrest of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’). A crowd of over 200,000 is expected, double the previous demonstrated on 4 November 2016. This crowd is to be matched by just 20,000 police and military personnel.

This is the second rally that has been held demanding his arrest in light of criminal investigations for blasphemy. The blasphemy case against Ahok has already been submitted by the Attorney General to the North Jakarta District Court.

In part, the case rests on a statement made by Ahok in which he referred to a verse of the Quran that is often used by Islamists as a reason why Muslims should not support non-Muslim politicians. Ahok himself is Christian.

While the next elections for governor are to be held in February 2017, the Attorney General’s Office has indicated that the case may proceed to trial quickly. Given that there may be several avenues for appeal, the case is still likely to stretch beyond this timeline.

In many ways the rally is inherent with contradictions and can be seen as an example of Islamist rule by law in Indonesia.

The call to demonstrate on 2 December was led by Munarman, infamous as a former human rights lawyer turned radical leader of the Islamic Defenders Front.

Munarman’s fall from the inner circles of human rights activists into the arms of Islamists is one of Indonesia’s greatest post-reform crises. He was a key leader in both Indonesian Legal Aid, known as ‘LBH’, and Kontras, a key human rights organisation.

Yet like many activists, Munarman appears to have become disillusioned with the post-reform struggle. In addition, he was perhaps deeply affected by the murder of Munir Said Thalib, a former high profile human rights activist and close colleague, poisoned by an agent of Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency.

In 2002, Munarman became leader of the prominent Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation in Jakarta. Yet in the years following, he seems to have shifted from support for the ideals of pluralism, democracy, religious freedom and the rule of law to publicly spouting highly intolerant views and open hostility to religious difference.

Munarman fell in with Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, an Islamist organisation that calls for the creation of a worldwide Islamic state and is known for its conservative views. In 2006, this led to an internal move within YLBHI to oust him from leadership. Munarman turned his attention to exposing and denouncing so-called ‘deviant’ Islamic beliefs.

Around 2008, Munarman became involved in the Islamic Defenders Front, which is well-known for its willingness to use intimidation and violence against religious minorities. He was even involved in the infamous rally in 2008 that resulted in an attack on a National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion, known as the ‘Monas tragedy’.

Munarman was jailed for his involvement. Since being released from prison, Munarman has made a point of openly opposing the kinds of values human rights activists – epitomised in the work of organisations such as LBH and Kontras – have struggled so long for.

In many ways Munarman’s stance represents the great paradox of Indonesian democracy. Post-1998 democratisation has given greater voice to Islamic organisations who use their freedom to promote an Islamist agenda that claims to uphold the law. In fact, they subvert it.

In Ahok’s case, by demanding that the police have been too slow, Islamists put pressure on the police to hasten the process. By demanding that the Attorney General arrest Ahok, they are already presuming charges will be laid.

By a show of force in the capital, Islamists issue an implicit threat to the judiciary who may hear the case – we will mob your courtroom next. So much for a fair and impartial hearing. If the case goes to trial, Ahok will face a sentence of up to five years prison

This should lead to deeper questions regarding the relevance of the blasphemy law in post-reform Indonesia. For many years now, human rights activists have acknowledged the abuse of the blasphemy law, particularly against minority groups in Indonesia.

Yet efforts to reform the law have been unsuccessful. The government has suggested the introduction of a Law on Inter-religious Harmony, a key pillar of which would be a provision reformulating the crime of blasphemy.

While human rights activists initially rejected this overt effort by the state to regulate religion, there were some attempts made to work within this draft proposal. Rather than abolishing the blasphemy law, activists sought a middle ground by trying to reformulate the crime of blasphemy.

But these efforts are based on the assumption that blasphemy should be a criminal offence regulated by the state. It also assumes that law enforcement agencies can implement the law objectively.

Yet legal institutions in Indonesia are largely powerless against the increasing tide of Islamist rule by law. Lawyers and former champions of human rights such as Munarman are the driving force behind Islamist rule by law.


This is a rule by law that uses the instruments and institutions of the law in a way that is backed by violence, intimidation and coercion. It is in this respect that Islamist rule by law has become the greatest threat to the future of Indonesian democracy.

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